It hasn’t been many years since my family income hovered around the poverty line. We were frustrated by this because we were not uneducated, unskilled workers. My husband finished his BA the year after we were married and had been the primary anchor and news producer for AFKN for two years. It was a surprise to us that in the civilian market for news reporters and anchors military experience meant starting at the bottom and the bottom meant working for minimum wage. At first, more than half of our income was taken up by rent. We did not get food stamps or other aid preferring to operate within an older ethic that did not burden others for choices we had made. We pawned everything of value and did without.
I know the pain of being underemployed. I empathize with those who are in a similar situation and on a personal level do whatever I can to soften the pain of going through this stage. And Americans do go through this stage in the sense that “individuals do in fact move up and down the earnings hierarchy all the time (Schiller and Mukhopadhyay, pg. 16). Although young people start in the lowest income quintile they do not need to expect to stay there. This mobility between income quintiles is well documented and not disputed between economists of different schools (Schiller and Mukhopadhyay).
Whatever facts and experience tell us, the pain of being a low wage earner is difficult for those in the midst of it and for those who believe that any inequality that exists should be remedied by the government. According to Balanced Politics.org, this is one of the common arguments for raising the minimum wage: “Workers need a minimum amount of income from their work to survive and pay the bills.” After all, if inflation makes all the prices go up, it seems reasonable that the minimum wage should rise to meet it so that our poorest people are not the ones to suffer. It makes a sort of sense to “force businesses to share some of the vast wealth with the people that help to produce it” (BalancedPolitics.org).
While this reasoning shows a lack of fundamental economic understanding, the intentions of politicians and voters who want to increase the minimum wage law seem to be good. They don’t like to see people suffer and they feel that it is such an easy way to minimize the suffering of some of our poorest people. They want to be compassionate and fair. These are seen to be the best virtues by which to evaluate the ethical nature of the law. If it is unfair that people earn different amounts of money, then to guarantee the lowest earners enough to live on is a way to approach fairness or to compensate them for the income inequality they are suffering.
Unfortunately, closer analysis reveals a number of problems with the use of virtue ethics to judge laws. First, there are differing ideas about which virtue should be at the top of our national agenda. At one time the virtue of personal industry was paramount and laws which tended to diminish personal industry lost their support. At another time, liberty was the highest virtue in American ideals so that laws that impinged on liberty did not go very far. Virtue ethical systems have this problem; it is inherent in the structure (Ethics Applied Edtion 6.0,Goree, Manias & Till, pg.164).
Furthermore, even if we were to agree that the goal of the minimum wage law was fairness and that fairness was the most important virtue to consider, further analysis would be necessary. Fairness to the employee must be balanced with fairness to the employer and also to the customer. Is it fair to penalize the person who takes the risks of owning a company in order to prop up earners who are just at the beginning of their earning trajectory? Since we cannot even define fairness in this situation, is it fair to impose a minimum wage law?
Note: We pick up next time with investigating the consequences of minimum wage as a method to assess its fairness.